Reportage. Friday was the climate march, followed quickly by the March of the Century, organized by trade unions and civil society. The yellow vests also, in their 18th appearance, took to the streets, where a minority of them began to set things on fire.

A weekend of peaceful and not-so-peaceful protest in France

The numerous demonstrations that crossed through Paris on Saturday shared one slogan: “The end of the world, the end of the month, the same culprits, the same struggle.”

In the afternoon, the Marche du siècle (“March of the Century”) started at the Opéra, organized by NGOs and trade unions the day after the young people’s climate protest, in an attempt to foster “a climate and social springtime” (an event which featured 45,000 participants in Paris, confirmed by an independent source, and over 300,000 in the whole of France according to the organizers). It was a calm and cheerful event, with slogans brimming with irony (an example: “Macron, you’re screwed, the pandas are marching in the streets”—referring to the humorous incident back in December when Mrs. Macron was attacked by an angry baby panda).

At the same time, other marches crossed through the French capital: a protest against police violence on behalf of the 500 people wounded during the four months of fighting between the police and the yellow vests, a march of solidarity with migrants that left from the Madeleine, another march against violence towards women, and even a protest by the carnival workers (who led a slow procession along the ring road around the city).

Saturday was also “Act 18” of the yellow vest protests, and they wanted to make a show of force after the progressive decrease in the number of participants in the previous Saturdays (from 282,000 on Nov. 17 down to 28,000 last Saturday)—and they indeed achieved a relatively higher turnout of 33,200 across France by Saturday noon, with 10,000 in Paris alone.

They also wanted to signal their ongoing discontent on the day after the end of the “Great Debate,” which was the first response by Emmanuel Macron to the wave of protests that has lasted for four months. For the yellow vests, Saturday was the day which was supposed to send an “ultimatum” to the president. There was a lot of anger among the clouds of tear gas: cries of “Macron, we’ll come to look for you at home” could be heard.

In Lyon and Marseille, climate protesters and yellow vests marched side by side; in Paris as well, people wearing yellow vests attended the Marche du siècle. But the yellow vest protests quickly degenerated into violence during the late morning, due to the presence of “1,500 violent individuals,” according to Interior Minister Christophe Castaner. This group abandoned the yellow vests and camouflaged themselves completely in black, a black bloc formation that went on to devastate shops and upscale restaurants in the Champs Elysées area. The spree of destruction had serious consequences: a bank was set on fire in Avenue Roosevelt and the fire spread throughout the building, leading to the evacuation of the inhabitants, including a woman and a small child, with 11 lightly injured. More than 150 people were arrested.

They again targeted the Arc de Triomphe in the Place Charles de Gaulle on the northern end of the Champs Elysées. The monument became the symbol of the revolt on Dec. 1, 2018, when it was first vandalized by protesters. In the mid-afternoon, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe went there together with Castaner as the clashes continued, to show their support for law enforcement.

Philippe condemned the violent protests in the strongest of terms: “Like the majority of the French people, I feel very angry about today’s acts, which have not been committed by protesters, but by casseurs [“thugs”], looters, criminals. On Saturday, in Paris and everywhere, there were demonstrations conducted in perfect calm. Today, hundreds, thousands of casseurs have come to destroy Paris. Anyone who makes excuses for them is an accomplice. These are unacceptable acts, which will be judged by the courts and severely punished.”

As a result, the “convergence of struggles” between the yellow vests and the climate protests faded into the background, and the political world (as well as the television coverage) focused instead on the violence. The right seized the opportunity to play offense. The Republicans’ top candidate on the list for the European elections, the philosopher François-Xavier Bellamy, usually a very calm figure, had some strong words against the government: “It is unacceptable to see that the government cannot maintain order. We must now put an end to the powerlessness of the State.” In Paris, there are those on the right who are floating the possibility of a military intervention to put an end to the street violence.

Saturday was also the second day of the meeting of the committees of citizens chosen by lot in the regions (18 such meetings are planned between this weekend and the next), to discuss the results of the Great Debate (which involved 10,000 meetings all across France over the past two months and a half, 1.7 million online contributions and 16,000 lists of grievances compiled in the municipalities). Now, the government has until mid-April to figure out the measures it will take and provide answers to the demands coming from the people.

Furthermore, Macron plans to continue to participate in other meetings with citizens, in something like a permanent electoral campaign, which will converge with that for the European elections. Laurent Berger, the secretary of the CFDT, has presented, together with former Minister Nicolas Hulot, a “social and ecological pact” consisting in 66 proposals, which combine social justice, the fight against inequalities and support for the ecological transition.

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